Sports Events To Honor Heroes That Rally Communities
By T. Wayne Waters
One of the organizations that focuses on organizing hero events is Hope For The Warriors. Founded in 2006, Hope For The Warriors was created by military spouses based at and around Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. The organization’s first event was the Run for the Warriors. Now based in Springfield, Va., just outside Washington, its mission has expanded to provide “comprehensive support programs for service members, veterans and family members that are focused on transition, health and wellness, peer engagement and connections to community resources.”
With four primary offices—Springfield, Va., New York City, Houston and Jacksonville, N.C.—and satellite offices around the country, Hope For The Warriors provided more than 12,000 services to more than 3,100 new service members, veterans, military families, caregivers and families of the fallen last year alone, according to Matthew Holton, marketing manager with the nonprofit organization.
In addition to sports events, Hope For The Warriors offers clinical and wellness assistance to those connected with military service, facilitated by licensed professionals, to help with life transitions that may be difficult. The organization develops relationships within communities for service members and veterans.
“Family is always the center of everything we do,” said Holton. “We don’t look just at the service member, we look at the effects of a transition process on the whole family.”
Run For The Warriors remains its largest sports event and most well-known endeavor to raise funds and awareness for the organization. Eight runs are scheduled for 2017 and the largest of these, according to Holton, will engage about 2,000 to 3,000 people, including racers, race officials and spectators. Hope For The Warriors further raises its profile with Team Hope For The Warriors, which competes in races organized by other groups.
Holton noted how gratifying it can be to see the way some race event participants experience an “opening up” as an event unfolds.
“Some military participants at the beginning of an event might stay to themselves, kind of in a shell. But as the event goes on, they begin to connect with either the Hope For The Warriors staff or other service members and really start to open up. Those connections last beyond the events. A camaraderie develops during the events.”
Hope For the Warriors also hosts the Got Heart, Give Hope Gala, an event held each September to honor service members as well as raise funds.
“The number of services we’re providing is growing,” Holton said. “It increased 17 percent from 2015 through 2016. Moving forward, we’ll be assessing how we can more efficiently reach more people who are needing our services and I’m confident that with our sponsors and strong supporters, we will do so.”
Named as one of the most patriotic areas in the United States by NewsMax Magazine, Fayetteville, N.C., and Cumberland County is home to the 82nd Airborne and the US Army Special Forces and almost every sports event in the community honors the country and military heroes in some way.
“The event that rises to the top is the All-American Marathon,” said Melody Foote, CDME, director of communications for the Fayetteville, N.C., Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Every spring we hold the All-American Marathon and the “Mike-to-Mike” half marathon. The run starts in Fayetteville and both finish on Fort Bragg. The event pays tribute to everyone who serves our country in many ways. Runners consistently say the most moving part of the marathon is the “Wear Blue Mile” which features American flags and pictures of members of the military that died in service to the country.”
All courses are certified by the USA Track and Field Association and the marathon is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon.
Foote said even the Fayetteville Swampdogs, a collegiate summer baseball team have a POW/MIA chair in the stadium to recognize someone who did not return home from war.
Another major player in hero sports competitions is The Travis Manion Foundation (The Foundation). Based in Doylestown, Pa., the organization is named for a Marine who was killed in combat in 2007 while trying to save wounded fellow soldiers. The Foundation was created by his mother to commemorate all military veterans and its distinct mission incorporates strong elements of character development, a service mentality and leadership skills for young people and future generations. The nonprofit’s tagline is “If Not Me, Then Who,” words Manion lived by as he served his country in combat. Today, the organization has seven offices: Doylestown, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, San Diego and Raleigh, N.C. The Foundation has served more than 60,000 veterans and survivors.
Athletic competition has been an important element of The Foundation’s efforts from the start. The 9/11 Heroes Run is its most prestigious event, established to “never forget the sacrifices of the heroes of September 11th and the wars since.” Honored heroes include military veterans, active military, first responders and civilian victims of terrorist attacks, wars and other emergencies.
“The first Travis Manion Foundation race in Doylestown had about 500 runners,” said Tina Saari, director of national engagement for The Foundation. “Our most recent one had nearly 4,000 and we now have about 50 races in 38 states across the country and several overseas, always including Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Our largest events are in Houston and Doylestown. The police and fire departments in Houston help us tremendously with the race there. The police captain in Houston, for instance, is our volunteer race director.”
Saari added that The Foundation has competitions on some naval ships, as well.
The 9/11 Heroes Run is a 5K that occurs on or near that date each year. It also includes a one-mile fun run/walk and welcomes runners and walkers of all levels and ages. Organized by local volunteers, these events are reminders of service men and women and their sacrifices.
“These races are invaluable in raising awareness of the Travis Manion Foundation and its mission,” said Saari, herself a military spouse. “We generally have about 50,000 people across the country show up at some of these events, including runners, spectators and volunteers. And we wouldn’t be able to do anything without these volunteers. The event is a great way to honor our heroes in the local communities and to remember the sacrifices of 9/11.”
The Foundation provides support services and character-building programs, including Character Does Matter.
“We often see a strong desire in the returning veterans to serve their community somehow and also for the kind of camaraderie they experienced in the military, so we give them a chance to work together and go into the schools and teach young people about integrity and character,” Saari said.
The Foundation also provides veteran transition workshops to help those who’ve served in the military readjust to civilian life. In addition, it sponsors survivor expeditions which send 9/11 survivors on service projects all over the world. Recently, participants went to New Mexico to build a home for a homeless Vietnam veteran.
Yet another initiative of The Foundation is Operation Legacy, a national week of service each April and November. Open to anyone, including children, inspired civilians, veterans and families of the fallen, volunteers complete service projects in their communities.
Funds generated during the national weeks of service remain in the local communities and support Operation Legacy’s continuing mission to work with veterans and survivors.
“We have veteran transition workshops to help veterans come back into the community and the civilian world,” Saari said.
Camp Lejeune is the largest Marine Corps base on the Eastern seaboard. Forty thousand Marines call the Jacksonville, N.C., area home. Appropriately, athletic events honoring those serving in the military, first responders and veterans are scheduled regularly.
“Celebrating and serving the heroes of the world, both everyday and extraordinary, is what we do best,” said Marisa Reeder, acting executive director for the Jacksonville Onslow Sports Commission. “From warm, friendly service to marching bands and parades, Jacksonville is a city dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the hero in all of us.”
Reeder is married to a Marine Corps veteran and she worked in the USO for several years before joining the sports commission, so she understands the importance of such events for the heroes being honored.
Reeder created the Boots on the Run 5K which is generally held around the anniversary of September 11. First responders are among the honorees.
“It’s just amazing when they cross the finish line and you see them getting helped out of their bulky uniforms and they’re drenched in sweat. There’s patriotic music playing. It’s uplifting and you feel the community coming together,” she said.
She’s proud of the dozens of hero competitions taking place throughout the county almost year-round. While most events are races, one boxing competition—the Marine Chevy Freedom Fight—had its inaugural event this year.
Reeder said the sports commission’s role with various events ranges from providing marketing to helping organizations secure funding grants. The commission also organizes many events from beginning to end.
“Our mission is to foster the community’s economic impact and its quality of life, and one way we and others do that is by holding these sports events,” she said.
On a smaller scale, but with a significant impact, the non-profit Alabama Sports Festival (ASF) Foundation operates the Honoring Our Heroes program in statewide Olympic-style competitions.
ASF was founded in 1982 at the request of the United States Olympic Committee. ASF’s goal is to teach young Alabamians the importance of academics, athletics, healthy lifestyles and good citizenship. One of ASF’s major components is the Alabama State Games program, which offers the annual Olympic-style athletic events in which approximately 3,000 athletes compete in about 100 events in 21 sports.
The ASF rotates the site of the State Games to various locations throughout Alabama, though engagements in one location are often scheduled for multiple years. The Games have been held in Dothan the last three years and will move to Huntsville for 2018 and 2019.
“Almost every year we have our Honoring Our Heroes program,” said Ron Creel, ASF founder, president and CEO. “We do that because we’re trying to teach our young athletes that there are individuals spending their lives—whether it’s a fireman, an EMS, police officer—who are trying to keep our communities safe—keep them safe—and that they should not be taken for granted.”
The ASF arranges to have an official resolution issued by the Alabama state legislature and signed by the governor. During the ceremonies, Creel reads a prepared statement from the governor in recognition of their service, as well as a statement from the ASF and registered first responders are presented with custom-designed medals. There is also a wreath ceremony to honor all first responders who gave their lives in service.
The State Games, including the opening ceremonies, are televised statewide on Alabama Public Television.
Sports events aren’t the only activity of ASF. The organization has provided more than $300,000 in academic scholarships, according to Creel. It also engages students with tobacco-prevention and drug-awareness campaigns, healthy living and wellness programs, and assists underprivileged and disadvantaged youth.